The Value of Negative Space

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do, and not doing it.” — Michael Porter

I’m a recent convert to Michael Porter’s principal for strategic action. It solves the common problem inherent in unclear goals. If top line strategy and objectives are ambiguous or unclear, then mission creep sets in; we can justify lots of activities in the pursuit of those loosely defined goals.

Thinking from a more abstract level than Porter probably intended, you can define any positive space by first defining the negative space. In theory, if you can effectively define all the things you’re not going to do, what’s left is your strategic plan.

negative-spaceDefining what you’re not going to do clarifies what you’re going to do.

For example, a negative space way to sharpen my strategy is simply to identify which of the many activities that are lingering on my to do list have less impact in getting me closer to my loosely defined goals. Setting the less effective activities aside, what I’m left with is what I will do. And what I’ll do determines what milestones I’ll achieve, and the goal I’m aiming for. Then I can ask myself. “Is that goal sufficient? Will those milestones that remain on my list get me to that goal?” If it is and they will, I have just sharpened my strategy.

Let’s attack a strategic question concerning sales:

What is it you want to accomplish in a meeting with a possible client? There are lots of answers to this question:

I want to build a relationship.
I want them to think of me when an opportunity presents itself.
I want to uncover seven reasons to follow up with them.
I want to understand their most important challenges.
I want to understand their business model and what their role is within it.
I want to walk out of the meeting with a deal to quote.
I want to resource and inform my client in ways that help them.

These are all good objectives. But if I set out to accomplish all of them in a client meeting, I run the risk of jumping around and not making useful progress on any of the objectives (the tactical equivalent of mission creep). The suggestion, if you’re thinking like Michael Porter, is to choose which of the objectives are less important. This is often easier than choosing the most important. The situation, your industry, your personality, your client’s preferences and the current status of your relationship will all impact which objective you choose not to pursue. Peel away the onion and see what’s left.

What remains is the clarified objective for your meeting: what do you need to do, and not do, to achieve that goal.

At whatever level of granularity you operate on the strategy-tactic chain, Michael Porter’s advice is useful.

Door to Door

We were expecting no one when the door bell rang at my mother’s house. I opened the door. The air was brisk, the wind was strong, the sun was burning bright. Standing at my mother’s front door was a young brown skinned man, wearing a frayed white oxford and dark blue pants that were slightly too big for him. A brown leather belt kept them up. His black shoes were scuffed and worn at the heels. He wore a tie and a backpack. One of his front teeth was crooked and stuck out further than the other. He held a spray bottle of aqua colored liquid.

“Good afternoon. I’m sorry to bother you and your family on such a beautiful day. Are you the man of the mansion, the hombre of the house?”

walk_manhole“You could say that. This is my mother’s house.” I said.

“Is the lady of the house home?”

“She’s busy making lunch for the boys.”

My three year old nephew peaked out from behind my legs.

“Who is it?” my nephew asked.

“It’s a door to door to door salesman, I think.”

“Door to door it is. And right now I’m at your door. So let me show you the product I’ve got. It’s a pine based, all natural, water-soluble, all cleaning product. It does dishes, laundry, floors, kitchens, bathrooms, sinks and ovens, and it’s all non-toxic.”

He talked fast.

“Smell the product.” He had, while talking, unscrewed the spray top and poured a cupful of the fluid into a screw top cap. He held it up for me to sniff. I obliged. He then held it down for Atticus to have a sniff. Atticus did, wrinkled his nose, looked at me, and retreated back to the puzzle he was working on.

“A little strong for the boy. It’s a simple, clean smell isn’t it?

I nodded.

“It’s a fresh, clean, natural smell.” He narrated. “And did I say this yet? It cleans everything, safe and effective for bathrooms, kitchens and carpets. It’s the only cleaning product you need for the home. If you’re like most people you have a dozen bottles of cleaning products, some dangerous to the little tyke, under your sink and in a bathroom closet. They can all be replaced with this all natural pine product.”

If you were polite, there was no space to interrupt and say you weren’t interested. His delivery was rapid fire. He covered a lot of ground, fast. The words came as quickly as my brain could comprehend their meaning, leaving me with little mental bandwidth to determine how to extricate myself. His script was a show. He appealed to my curiosity. He was a cure for boredom. I kept listening. There was no space to interrupt anyway. His scripts were memorized. His rap was mesmerizing.

He continued “It’s not everyday that the KKK come to your door selling cleaning products. I see your surprise, by KKK I mean Kool Kolored Kids. Let me give you a demonstration. I saw some stains on your driveway.”

He identified three spots on the cement in front of the garage. They could have been oil spots from my mother’s car. They could have been all that remained of a squashed bug. (They could have been left by him before he rang the bell.) He dabbed a cloth with some of the aqua colored fluid, bent his knees to one side, crouching, and rubbed the three spots on my mother’s driveway. They all came up.

“I’m working hard out here cleaning the pavement in the hot sun. Let’s make life easier for your mother and provide her with this safe, natural, pine based, high-powered cleaning product. One bottle cost twenty-six dollars and will last you for a month. How much do you think her monthly budget is for dishwasher detergent, laundry, bathroom scrubbers?”
As a minimalist (I survive on shampoo, hand soap and toothpaste for the most part), I was intrigued by the idea of one product. I was pretty sure my mother wouldn’t be. The natural pine product would add to the clutter under her sink, rather than subtract from it.

He walked me back to the front door. “The product comes in regular strength for $26, and extra strength for $3 more per bottle. It comes in pine and lavender scents. I make $6 a bottle for the first bottle and I get 50% for any bottle I sell after that. So if you buy two, you really help me out.”

At this point I was more interested in helping him out than I was in acquiring more bottles of cleaning fluid for my mother. Telling the customer his share of the revenue was by design. The salesman banked on the fact that a hardworking door-to-door salesman deserved a break.

I had a lot of questions.

I assume he was 100% commission based. Had he attended a training program to build his scripts? Did he build them alone or did the company provide scripts? Did the trainer overtly make clear that you had to talk fast and have a few non sequiturs, like the KKK line to pique interest? Was it is intention to make the customer curious about you, because half of them would make a purchase to support you, not because they wanted the product? Is that the reason to go to nicer neighborhoods? People may not be more charitable but at least they have more to be charitable with. Where did he live? How much did he make? How much thinking when into his dress. A tie paired with a scruffy, schoolboy outfit. Was it all considered, or was it all he had?

If it wasn’t all by design, it should have been. To sum up my curiosity, I wondered how much of his presentation was deliberate, how much was instinct, and how much was random.

I imagined him at some seedy bar after work; a place that knew him. He didn’t drink there everyday. He was disciplined. His ample and entertaining memorized scripts were testament to that. He only went to the bar after a good day (or maybe a bad day), or maybe only on Fridays. He had his trademark drink, a Seven and Seven maybe, and chatted with the bartender with stories of his day. Perhaps on an interesting day, he regaled several of the regulars as well, who clapped him on his slight shoulder at story’s end and retired to their corners.

He started to repeat himself and I interrupted him. I was torn between my growing curiosity about his job, his training and his life, and getting back to the rest of my afternoon.

“Look.” I said. “My mom is moving soon and she doesn’t need any more bottles of stuff. I looked him in the eye. I’m not going to buy anything today.” I was looking at him when I started the sentence, I was I looking down at the threshold as I finished it.

“I won’t take any more of your day then,” he said quickly. I looked up. He was gone.

He moved so quickly I was surprised. Part of his strategy too? Not to attack a retreating client. Part of me wanted to say, “Wait. I have questions.” I wondered how many people do call out, “wait!” or “hang on” or “come back!” Their expression of no interest a rebuke that is followed by a wave of sympathy. (Once you’ve beckoned him back, you sort of have to buy something.) The rapid exit was a practiced part of his technique, I think. A polite, unexpected and abrupt one, but that was exactly the point.

Or maybe my statement of a lack of intention to buy was a clear signal, based on his experience, that he was wasting his time, and he might as well move along to the next door. In his mind I had ended the conversation, and he was taking away the entertainment. I don’t know.

I let him go.

I’ll be back in Santa Fe in July for a family visit with my mom before she moves. I hope he shows up again at my mother’s door. We’ll have lots to talk about.